D-cinema opens up world of opportunities

Kate Hanley, B.A., LL.B. is president of Digital Theory Media Consulting, which, through executive education, research and strategic planning, helps traditional players exploit opportunities in emerging media. Hanley can be reached at khanley@digitaltheory.ca

From sold-out HD simulcasts of opera and ballet to the hit 3D Hanna Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert, digital cinema is heating up the theater scene in Canada. Poised for a major expansion, this technology presents an exciting proposition. But makers of ‘long-tail’ Canadian films, documentaries and other cultural content looking to use D-cinema to generate new audiences might have to look beyond traditional theatrical venues.

D-cinema has long been touted as a technology that could level the playing field for independent producers. Digital projectors and networked servers eliminate the need to create multiple 35mm film prints, resulting in substantial distribution savings. Plus, the platform’s tremendous flexibility allows exhibitors to attract niche audiences with a much wider range of programming.

According to a recent Screen Digest study, only 5.5% of global theater screens are digital, but that’s about to change. In 2005, the Hollywood studios-backed Digital Cinema Initiative introduced international technical standards for commercial D-cinema. As a result, 2K resolution has been established as the minimum projection grade.

Also, new financing options have made the estimated $100,000 per-screen conversion costs palatable to exhibitors. The lion’s share of equipment costs is most commonly recovered over time through ‘virtual print fees’ paid by distributors, either to exhibitors directly or to third-party underwriters.

Screen Digest predicts that 30% of the world’s modern screens will be converted by 2010. Here in Canada, Cineplex Entertainment, the country’s largest commercial exhibitor, begins its D-cinema conversion of all 1,300 screens this year, with completion expected by 2011.

For some time, theaters have also been utilizing lower-quality HD projection systems to boost ticket sales with new forms of entertainment. In Canada, the potential of alternative content came to fruition last year with the smash hit Metropolitan Opera: Live in High-Definition, followed by live HD screenings of The National Ballet of Canada’s The Nutcracker. The notion that exhibitors could fill movie theaters with simulcast opera or ballet seemed a long shot, but audience response has proved overwhelming.

‘These are exciting times for cinema,’ says Pat Marshall, Cineplex VP communications and investor relations. ‘There’s tremendous opportunity for creativity with this technology. We’re open to all kinds of experiences, from concerts and cultural events to educational programming and speaker series.’

However, in a commercial landscape, Canadian feature-film producers may find their prospects largely unchanged.

‘As distributors, we’re gambling real marketing dollars on a film’s potential to vie for audiences,’ says Brad Pelman, co-president of Canadian distributor Maple Pictures. ‘If the film is good and has commercial appeal, it will always get a wider release.’

Producers with non-traditional content will find a real appetite for experimentation. However, to land a theatrical deal, they too will need a potential hit backed by substantial marketing muscle. Cineplex’s Marshall explains: ‘Success depends on ensuring the right people know about the program – particularly if it’s non-traditional.’

The most accessible opportunities for Canadian filmmakers may, in fact, lie outside the multiplex. A low-cost HD projection system and server can turn almost any venue into a networked theater. While these ‘E-cinema’ systems do not meet international commercial standards, they offer solid picture quality for smaller venues.

Alternative E-cinema theater networks across North America and Europe are delivering independent films, documentaries and other non-mainstream content. In the U.S., Emerging Pictures’ network of partner theaters is comprised of some 25 art houses, community centers and cultural institutions. Freedom from traditional multiplex economics allows this upstart exhibitor to experiment with niche content, from documentary festivals to a film series devoted to independent features.

In Canada, the Canadian Museum of Nature, in partnership with New York-based distributor CineMuse, has cultivated a growing network of partner HD theaters in museums and cultural institutions across North America.

Lorna Sierolawski, CineMuse network coordinator at the Canadian Museum of Nature, sees a natural fit.

‘We, like many museums, had an auditorium that stood empty for much of the time,’ she recalls. ‘With a relatively small investment in an HD system, we created a new year-round attraction.’

The CineMuse HD library includes an extensive collection from BBC Worldwide, but few titles from Canada.

‘We would like to add more Canadian content,’ says Sierolawski. ‘We need to spread the word that we are open for business.’

The National Film Board’s pilot New Brunswick E-cinema project could represent a major outlet for Canadian content if extended across Canada. The NFB has installed HD projection systems in five Acadian communities, supplying them with regular NFB offerings via a networked server.

According to NFB film commissioner Tom Perlmutter, ‘E-cinema is an integral part of our digital plans. If this pilot is successful, we would like to see a rollout across the country.’

While Canadian Heritage has provided partner funding for the pilot, any expansion would likely require far greater public commitment. To date, Canada has refrained from major investment in digital cinema, contrary to many leading filmmaking countries around the world.

Across Europe, Australia and even South America, governments are funding the technology to create new opportunities for domestic and independent product.

The U.K. Film Council has implemented an ambitious plan to ensure that non-Hollywood films find a space in the commercial digital landscape. It has funded the digital conversion of 240 theater screens across Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, offering theater operators free D-cinema equipment in return for devoting a percentage of screen time to non-Hollywood specialized films.

The European Union MEDIA program funds a joint public/private initiative, CinemaNet Europe, which has brought digital installations and a growing catalog of alternative European film and documentary content to a network of 180 cinemas in eight countries. Sweden’s Folkets Hus och Parker network of art house cinemas, the Australia Film Commission’s Regional Digital Screen Network and the RAIN Network in Brazil are other publicly funded initiatives that aim also to deliver domestic and independent content.

With commercial D-cinema already here, Canada’s best option now for promoting long-tail domestic content may lie in alternative networks such as that of the NFB. The opportunities for Canadian culture would be significant, as would be the challenge to harness the technology and the audience while the field is still open.